Ruskin Pottery of Smethwick

Being a Birmingham based auction house it is no surprise that Ruskin pottery is always a hit in the saleroom with a local interest and collectors alike, however this was a company that offers a much more interesting and important history outside of Birmingham.

Originally was established in 1898 as Birmingham Tile and Pottery Works, and renamed Ruskin Pottery a few years later, by Edward Richard Taylor, who was principal at the Birmingham School of Art, with his son William Howson Taylor, who has also be a pupil at the school, later also joining the company. He was a strong believer in the Art & Crafts movement at the end of the 19th Century with following the ideas of John Ruskin and William Morris, with the renaming of the company to that of Ruskin.

Following on their thoughts, Ruskin Pottery was built on the idea of items being created as a form of art and beauty created with skill and craftsmanship with character, a very different idea from evermore industrialised manufacturing processes using machinery for mass production of cheap labour and products.

Although first creating tiles and relatively simple tableware in the early years, Edward had a passion for experimenting with glazes and ceramics, more so in their very high levels of skill in mastering the high fired techniques, and it would be because of these wares that would be most recognisable of Ruskin Pottery. During the late 19th Century there was a rising popularity in Chinese porcelain and art, with other companies developing and experimenting their own ideas for rediscovering their technique, Taylor is said to have spent up to a three years experimenting in secret his own glazes and techniques with his own personal kiln constructed in the factory with only himself allowed near it. The finished glazes that would go on to be produced from these experiments further show his Arts & Crafts ideas in that every glaze for every item made by the factory would be completely unique and impossible for two to ever be identical.

Once this technique had become controllable this was then exhibited to promote the factory, most notably at St Louis International Exhibition in 1904, in which they won Grand Prize, with the first of the saleable wares shown with firing said to have been fully controlled for production in 1905, however it is believed that only the Taylors personally fired all high fired pieces to preserve the technique secret.

Participating in the exhibition showed a strong confidence in the wares that were produced by the Ruskin factory and was a huge success for the factory, given the small size and workforce of the factory, which resulted a wider recognition of the factory particularly with American customers. Following this success Ruskin Pottery went on to further exhibit for many years to come with many pieces being bought by museums and collections including the Victoria & Albert museum.

During the First World War and the following decade, after the death of Edward in 1911, the factory like so many others suffered from economic depressions and downturns, however enjoying a couple of years of strong sales in 1919 to 1921, the factory continued to develop new designs and ideas with adaptations to their high fired ranges, the sale of roundels for jewellery and other objects along with their mainstream lustre and soufflé glazes.

The 1920’s saw a period of development of the factory’s crystalline and matt glazes and gradual scaling down of the factory. The crystalline glaze developed was as a result of a changing attitude of public opinion, more towards Art Deco from the previous lustre wares and a factor of these glazes being cheaper to produce with less firings needed per piece. At the end of the 1920’s a series of losses of key staff members through deaths and resignations hit the company in it creative and productive capabilities with the factory announcing closure on 20th December 1933 due to Taylor’s health concerns.

In the following two years before the factory’s final closure in July 1935 the buildings were cleared with the removal of equipment and smashing of the kilns, during this time all original books and firing notes were destroyed, declining numerous offers to sell the notes, as a determined promise to his father to never share the secrets of the factory. However William’s retirement was short lived, dying on 22nd September 1935 in Devon from the same prostate disease that claimed the live of his father and elder brother, with the secrets lost forever.

From Mark

Leave a Reply